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Why Navalny's Attempt To Dismantle Putin's Regime Feels Out Of Reach

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 1956, three years after Joseph Stalin's death, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, gave a secret speech that shocked Russia. Khrushchev did the unthinkable. He denounced Stalin and the brutal crackdowns on his own people. Word of the speech got out. And many Russians started to wonder if this meant political dissent might not get you killed. Journalist Marvin Kalb was in Moscow at the time.

MARVIN KALB: I can tell you flat-out that there was excitement. There was tremendous feeling of change in the air, that there was fresh air running through the Kremlin. But it was fragile. The effort to reform Russia always is a fragile effort which can collapse overnight.

MARTIN: And it did collapse by the end of that year. Kalb has watched as others have tried and failed to reform Russia in the decades since. Now, under Vladimir Putin, Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny finds himself locked up like many before him. He is on a hunger strike and, at this point, very ill. Marvin Kalb says in spite of the thousands of protesters marching across Russia, Navalny's attempt to dismantle Putin's regime still feels out of reach. Our co-host Noel King talked with Kalb.

KALB: I suspect there have been any number of Russian reformers, Russian refuseniks, who felt that they were going to break through, that they were going to be the literal agents of change. But it doesn't quite happen. When they are up against the formidable power of the entrenched Russian political system, it doesn't matter really. Whether run by a czar or run by a communist like Stalin, you're up against a system that has built deep roots. And in order to rip those out, you need another revolution. Whether that is even in the cards, who knows? In Russian history, every hundred years or so, there is a widespread upheaval that you can call a revolution. Whether one can now happen in the Putin era, I don't know. I doubt it. But one is always possible.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: And so - sadly, it seems like what you're saying is that in 20 years, we might not remember Alexei Navalny's name.

KALB: He may very well end up being a footnote. He can be a figure of considerable historical importance for one reason at this point. And that is that whereas other reformers in Russian history have moved up to a point and then collapsed, Navalny has social media. He has the new technology. That technology is one of his fundamental strengths. He has soft power. Let's put it that way. He has people's power.

The old refuseniks, the old people in rebellion against the system, had no such capacity. They would write things on toilet paper and send it from one person to another. They would whisper. They would somehow or another get a friend to carry a message to the Baltics and from the Baltics into the West. But they did not have the capacity to speak to millions of people. Navalny finally has that. But whether he can take that soft power and translate it into hard power - meaning the established power of the state, the military, political power - that is something yet to be written. If he were to die in prison or even released from prison and dies in a short period of time, I suspect he will become much more of a footnote than the chapter.

KING: I'd like to ask you to speculate a little bit on Alexei Navalny's psychology. He got out of Russia. And he didn't have to go back.

KALB: Yes.

KING: He knew that if he did, he would be put in prison. He'd already been poisoned. He went back to that knowing what was in store for him. He also has chosen to engage in a hunger strike, which is a very dangerous thing to engage in. When you look at the psychology of a person like Navalny, do you think he is courting death deliberately?

KALB: There is in Russian history a strain of revolt that starts very quietly and ends up with people looking back and saying to themselves, how did these fools ever believe that they could possibly make things different? There used to be a people called the Old Believers in Russia in the tail end of the 19th century. And these are people who fashioned themselves onto ideas that were totally unrealistic. But they believed them to be true even if they had to die in the process. Why? - because they felt that Russia was something so special that it could create political miracles, religious miracles, cultural miracles. And as a result, death was a small price.

I'm not saying that Navalny is a living reproduction, reincarnation of an Old Believer. But he sounds that way to me. And he sounds like someone who might be prepared to give his life for the creation of a new political order in Russia. He does it because he must feel that he is capable of transforming a system. And that means he is a very special personality, a man who is, in a way, a fanatic who believes he can take on the hard, encrusted power of Putin as a dictator and the state as a strong force. I think, given the history of Russia, there's very little chance of that happening - unfortunately, you might add, but very little chance nonetheless.

KING: Marvin Kalb. His new book is called "Assignment Russia: Becoming A Foreign Correspondent In The Crucible Of The Cold War."

Mr. Kalb, thank you so much for your time and your insights.

KALB: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIA KENT'S "FLOATING CITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.